Saturday, 3 June 2017

Gig Review: Slam Dunk Festival 2017 at Hatfield University 29/5/17

Monday May 29th 2017 marked my fifth year in a row attending Slam Dunk Festival at Hatfield University in Hertfordshire. The line up has always been really stacked with the best bands in punk, ska, rock, metal and all other alternative genres and this 2017 edition was obviously no different. Of course, I was there for the punk and ska stage which was rammed with some of the biggest name ever in the ska and pop punk genres. This year Emma was with me as well, attending her very first Slam Dunk Festival. (Emma’s parts of this review are in italics.)

As the Slam Dunk organisers advised, we arrived nice and early at the Hatfield site and met up with our pals Dan, Marilyn and Emily. We very quickly got our festival wristbands and joined an already growing queue. Part of the reason that Slam Dunk advised arriving early was because of the extensive searches that would be going on before entering. Something that was completely understandable given the devastating terrorist attack at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester earlier in the week. This did make moving through the queue take a little longer than normal but I'm sure the majority of people were completely happy with this and I thought that the whole process was handled superbly. One girl near me wasn't quite so happy about the speed of the queue and was moaning something about how this wasn't value for money. I didn't quite get what on earth she was going on about. What a silly billy. Once we made it in we used the toilets and scoped out where all the stages and food stalls were around the site. After bumping into our pals Mark from Müg (who designed the Fireball stage poster) and Jack from Ships Down, we made our way to the Fireball stage to check out the first band of the day - Fenix TX!

Slam Dunk Festival was Fenix TX's first UK appearance in many, many years. Fenix TX were a big part of the Drive Thru Records roster that first got me into punk rock music all those years ago. When they were announced for the line up I was so excited. I am very pleased to say that Fenix TX did not disappoint! Starting out with the opening track from Lechuza Phoebe Cates was a master stroke. This got those of us in the crowd who were old enough to have known Fenix TX way back when invested into the set properly and the sing-a-longs kept coming and coming. The set included favourites such as Threesome, Minimum Wage, Katie W and A Song For Everyone before closing on my personal favourite, All My Fault. For a band that so rarely play shows Fenix TX were so tight and their onstage banter, whilst maybe not being to everyone's taste, had me thoroughly entertained. It was so good to finally see Fenix TX after all these years and it was the best possible start to the day.

While Colin stuck around for the end of Fenix TX’s set, before heading over to the Signature Brew stage to see Sorority Noise, I split off to find the Uprawr acoustic stage. It’s a shame I wasn’t able to catch more of the acoustic artists really as they’d probably have all been right up my street – there was just too much great stuff going on elsewhere that I didn’t want to miss, mostly the Fireball (ska punk) stage. The one artist that I did see however is one of my favourite melancholic songwriters, The Lion And The Wolf. I’ve seen him a couple of time before so his jokes about bringing the mood down and wanting to start a sad mosh pit were not new to me but they were equal parts humbling and amusing nonetheless. The Lion And The Wolf’s songs are beautiful on recording and also pretty darn lovely to hear stripped back live with just an acoustic guitar and Tom’s excellent voice. I made the right choice in catching him play at Slam Dunk South and, hey, I still got to see the end of Sorority Noise’s set anyway.

We'd already seen The Ataris earlier this year so I figured I'd go and check out an up and coming pop punk band who have been making waves in the past few years, Sorority Noise. By the time that Fenix TX had finished and I'd made my way across the festival site to the Signature Brew stage Sorority Noise were just beginning their set and boy it was busy! I ingeniously got myself a good viewing point behind the sound tent (you could see straight through it without being squashed up next to folk) and then preceded to be wowed by the band from Connecticut. If I had to desbribe their sound to someone it would say take the best bits of Modern Baseball and The Front Bottoms, toss them carefully (we don't want to make a mess) into the blender until you get some fantastic story telling pop punk. Playing a mix of songs from all three of their albums; Forgettable, Joy, Departed and new album You're Not As _______ You Think, you could see that the kids down the front were so pumped for this band. They are clearly destined to play bigger stages and much higher up the bill at many Slam Dunk Festivals to come. The major highlight for me was the song Mediocre At Best where the band's singer mixed The Menzingers song Good Things into the original track. I love The Menzingers so this was cool.

Emma came to meet me during the finish of Sorority Noise and after finding Dan at the main stage watching Crossfaith (who covered The Omen by The Progidy which was pretty cool) we headed back to the Fireball Stage to see Zebrahead. There is a joke that goes around that Zebrahead are the Slam Dunk house band as they've played four times in a row now. It's easy to see why they are always invited back - they always bring the party! A huge crowd came to see Zebrahead and as soon as they began their opening track, Save Your Breath, the pit opened up and it got crazy. Zebrahead are experts at getting a crowd moving and never ever disappoint. Always ones for encouraging a little bit of crowd surfing, particularly during the song Mike Dexter Is A God where they tried to get as many crowd surfers as possible. They did this a few years ago at a Slam Dunk and I ended up getting kicked in the head. I've learnt my lesson had stayed well clear this year. The set was of course finished with Anthem and the band were joined on stage by the Reel Big Fish horn section, not the last time we'd be seeing them today. I've seen Zebrahead many times over the years now and I've gotten to the point of "cool Zebrahead" rather than being over excited to see them but when I they come on I'm immediately into it and have the best of times.

When preparing for Slam Dunk 2017, Colin made a playlist of his (our) must-see bands. There was one band that kept cropping up on shuffle and I would always say ‘Ooh, I like this. Who’s this?’ – that band was Mad Caddies. You’d have thought after a few times I’d have learnt which songs were Mad Caddies but actually they have a very wide ranging musical repertoire. Loosely falling under the overarching genre of ‘ska punk’, Mad Caddies’ music ranges from punk rock, reggae, polka and even a bit of Latin music thrown into the mix. For this reason alone, I was very much looking forward to seeing what their live show was like. It’s safe to say that I wasn’t disappointed! Up until that point of the day, I’d been bopping along to the bands but didn’t really have a proper dance – or skank – until watching the Mad Caddies. They even [unintentionally] got a bunch of people near us doing the macarena. Whatever the genre, the Californian six piece definitely play music to get you moving. I can imagine it going down well on a gloriously sunny day but it worked perfectly fine in the British drizzle anyway. I’m looking forward to seeing them again, alongside Reel Big Fish, in October and dancing my socks off once more.

Back in 2015 Goldfinger's Slam Dunk set was incredibly delayed due to a big technical issue. For me this put a little bit of a downer on the day as it was an hour wasted where I could have seen some other bands (notably, Finch) rather than standing around waiting for so long. When they were announced for this year's festival I was happy to be able to see them again, hopefully this time without all of the technical difficulties. Well there was a slight delay but once Goldfinger took to the stage and opened up with Spokesman you just knew this was going to be a special set. There were some new, but familiar faces playing with Goldfinger now - Phillip Sneed of Story Of The Year was on lead guitar, Cyrus Bolooki on drums and Mike Hererra of MXPX of bass. That's basically a super group. Frontman John Feldmann has some talented pals. Goldfinger's set made me realise how much I loved Goldfinger back in the day and just how many amazing songs they have in their locker. Highlights included a cover of Operation Ivy's Knowledge along with Goldfinger classics such as Counting The Days, Mable, 99 Red Balloons and Superman, when the Reel Big Fish horns again made an appearance. Goldfinger also played a couple of new songs - Put The Knife Away and Tijuana Sunrise, both of which have got me looking forward to a new album. We also found it particularly amusing that John repeatedly referred to where we were as London - Hatfield is not in London.

Reel Big Fish are the first big ska punk that I ever saw live, about ten years ago at a one-day festival in Wales. I wasn’t overly into them at the time but, as you can probably imagine, I enjoyed their live performance all the same. I then saw them again five years later whilst at university in Falmouth, Cornwall. Cornwall doesn’t get all that many touring bands so I jumped at the chance to see Reel Big Fish again and it was great. Another five years on and I’m more into ska punk (and punk rock in general) than ever and so Slam Dunk was the perfect time to see the band again, if perhaps a little overdue. Like many ska bands, but perhaps more so than their counterparts, Reel Big Fish are a band that are at their best when performing live – they are just such great showmen and that goes for more than just frontman Aaron Barrett. Particular highlights of their set included I Want Your Girlfriend To Be My Girlfriend, Where Have You Been and, of course, Sell Out. Ever the comedy act, there was also an entertaining part of the set where the band played bits of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, Lit’s My Own Worst Enemy and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ The Impression That I Get before crediting the song to incorrect bands – with the latter two songs credited to Bowling For Soup and Less Than Jake, the bands that would be playing after them on the Fireball stage. It’s great that all these 90s/00s pop punk and ska bands are still great friends, I’m not sure the same could be said of other genres. I had a brilliant time skanking away to Reel Big Fish and I certainly won’t be leaving it another 5 years until I see them again… more like 5 months.

One way to get a crowd that is surely tiring after a long and exhausting day is by kicking off your set with one of your most well known and loved songs. That's exactly what penultimate band, ska punk legends and my all time favourite band, Less Than Jake did when they kicked off their set with All My Best Friends Are Metalheads. This certainly got me and many of the people around me skanking and instantly forgetting all about their aching limbs. Despite releasing an excellent new EP this year, named Sound The Alarm, the set featured mostly old school Less Than Jake songs. I always think this is the best thing for bands to do at a festival show. People want to hear the classics and Less Than Jake have many of those. They did however play Bomb Drop from the new EP and it was a very welcome addition to the set. This was my thirteenth time seeing Less Than Jake live - the more superstitious might think it will be unlucky thirteen and LTJ might finally produce a bad performance. Obviously they didn't. The songs sounded fantastic, the sound across Slam Dunk all day was fantastic, and all of the between song shenanigans were as entertaining as ever. There was a moment when guitarist Chris Demakes wanted to pull up a member of the crowd who was dressed like he should be appearing in a My Chemical Romance video. There was a bit of a snag however when one of the security wouldn't let him up so Chris had to have an argument with security to get him on stage so he could dance on stage to Overrated. Finishing the show with The Science Of Selling Yourself Short (where Reel Big Fish horn section made another appearance on stage - I hope they were paid well), Gainesville Rock City and The Ghost Of You Me Less Than Jake was as amazing as ever.

Looking at the whole line-up for Slam Dunk 2017, alternative music fans in general were probably both excited and gutted about the choice of headlining acts in equal measures – excited because there were six of them to choose from and gutted because, well, you can’t see them all at once. For us, however, there was no choice in the matter. We wouldn’t be watching Enter Shikari on the main stage and we wouldn’t be watching Bowling For Soup on the Fireball stage, where we had spent the majority of our afternoon. For Colin and I our headline act of choice was always going to be Against Me!. As one of my all-time favourite bands, it was Against Me! that actually officially had me ‘sold’ on going to my first Slam Dunk in the first place – although the combination of Less Than Jake and Reel Big Fish had me pretty keen too. There was plenty of time in between the end of Less Than Jake’s set and the start of Against Me!’s that meant we were able to snag a decent view spot in plenty of time. On the one hand, it feels like Slam Dunk could have fit more bands into the whole day with shorter change over periods but on the other it was pretty good to have time to get food or just generally walk between stages without actually missing any of the bands you wanted to see. The Signature Brew stage was actually pretty small as the stages at Slam Dunk go so it was pretty interesting seeing Against Me! there. Personally, I think they could have played a much bigger stage but then I’m surprised they were added to the bill at all, let alone as headliners, given the festival is predominately ‘new’ pop punk bands (hence why I haven’t been before). Anyway, enough rambling because rambling is something that frontwoman Laura Jane Grace and Against Me! did not do. They were slick and intense as they powered through their set, without much time for words in between. The setlist was one that could happily appeal to all Against Me! fans – old and new – featuring the likes of True Trans Soul Rebel, Teenage Anarchist, Pints of Guinness (as well as two others from Axl Rose!), New Wave, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Sink Florida Sink and plenty from the latest album, Shape Shift With Me, as well. I adore Against Me! and I enjoy them the most when watching them live and, despite a festival appearance being a slightly different ballgame, I loved watching them headline Slam Dunk, albeit one of the smaller stages. The band packed a mighty 17 tracks into their hour long slot and it went by in a whir – because it was all so good. Towards the end of their set, the band paused for a moment while Laura could express her love for the DIY punk scene. Slam Dunk is, of course, a fairly sizeable music festival but its roots are in DIY and I completely get what Laura was saying. The poignant statement of ‘DIY doesn’t mean doing it alone’ is something that stuck with me after Against Me! had finished playing. Long live DIY punk rock!

Before getting to a conclusion of what a fantastic day we had there is a couple of negatives I wanted to talk about. Firstly the sheer amount of rubbish that was everywhere, even after the site was only open a couple of hours. I realise there wasn't always bins immediately available where you might have been but it really doesn't take much to hold on to your rubbish and put in a bin when you see one. If it's full, which admittedly many were, just put it next to the bin as that's better than just leaving wherever. It's supposed to be a nice day out, nobody enjoys wading through piles of rubbish to get around a festival site. The other thing was the throwing of bottles into the pit. This is just stupid and I don't see the fun in it at all.

But the good stuff. Oh there was so much good stuff! The event was organised brilliantly, with the festival organisers giving out plenty of information prior to the festival and during. There wasn't a single bad band that I saw and no watching filler sets whilst waiting for a band that I actually wanted to see. There wasn't a single time when I had a bad view of the stage and, like I mentioned earlier, the sound was fantastic. Especially for an outside event. The line-up for the entire festival was first class, probably the best Slam Dunk has ever had and, in my own humble opinion, is easily stronger than the three more mainstream alternative festivals Reading/Leeds, Download and Glastonbury. The crowd was also one of the nicest Slam Dunk crowds that I've been part of, everyone was really friendly and looked after each other in the pits. I had a great time dancing in a smaller pit that opened up at the back of the crowd during Reel Big Fish's set. Five Slam Dunks down, this was probably the best yet. Bring on next year!

This review was written by Colin and Emma.